What if you built your business around one goal per year?

I’m getting old enough now that I’m measuring the personal milestones of my life in years. For example, 2005 was a great year because my son, Matthew, was born.  2005 is also the year we bought our current home in Boulder and the year I rediscovered my love for cycling.  I can recall fewer milestones from the earlier years of my adult life.  1993 is the year I moved to Atlanta.  That’s all I’ve got for 1993.  And, I don’t immediately associate 1994 with any significant personal milestone.  Yikes, did I really lose an entire year?

I use the same unit of measure to recall my professional career.  1998 is the year I decided I could no longer work for a giant company (I worked for IBM at the time).   2004 is the year that we launched Robohead.  2007 is the year we launched MajorTom and the year we really solidified our current sales strategy.

What’s the point?  In spite of the fact that I feel like I’m always really busy and getting a lot done, I’ve come to accept that I only accomplish one or two things a year that really matter.   This realization has been one of the most important discoveries of my career.  Here’s why…

Imagine how liberating and powerful it can be to recognize that you are only capable of accomplishing one…maaaaaybe two… major goals a year BEFORE you start each year.   The last few years I’ve started the year by sitting down with our leadership team and asking them to help me answer the question “20XX is going to be remembered as the year that we (insert single goal here)”.   I’ve found that it is really important that we limit ourselves to just one goal in order to get the necessary buy in and focus from each member of the team.  Once we agree upon the goal, individuals can plan out their action items with a real sense of purpose.  Any “to do” item that doesn’t have a clear impact on helping us achieve our goal will likely get tossed.

After we set our 2009 goal in early January, I reviewed all the strategic items that had been accumulating on my to do list, and I scratched off every item except one:  “hire great people”.  Of all the things that I wanted to do or that I thought I needed to get done this year, I realized that if I did nothing else but hire great people in 2009 we would have a great shot at achieving our goal.  As time passes throughout any given year, my to do list naturally starts to expand and drift.  As this year has progressed, I’ve added a few additional to do items to help us achieve our goal.  More importantly, I’ve removed items before I’ve even started working on them when I realized they weren’t on goal.

Most of the people I meet who are in the early stages of launching a new business are passionate, ambitious, and seem to have boundless energy.  And, I honestly don’t think you can be a successful entrepreneur without these attributes (being lucky certainly doesn’t hurt either).  However, I’ve seen plenty of examples where these very same traits lead to unnecessary failure because the goals are too broad and so the energy and the passion aren’t directed.    Sometimes the only way to learn this lesson is to: try to do too much, do nothing particular well, and fail.   On the flip side, if you are willing to put all of your energy in to just one goal, your chances of doing that one thing very well increase significantly.

Ask most successful founders why a particular business was successful and they’ll usually point to one or two key accomplishments across the entire life of the company.  For a tech startup, it might be introducing a single killer feature or building one key partnership that leads to success.  As the old saying goes, it is the quality of activities not the quantity of activities that will typically make the most impact on the success of your business.  This is particularly true in an early stage business where there are few resources and lots of things you might want to quickly get in place.

I recognize that some people are far more productive than me.  Others are probably never willing to accept just one goal a year.  Either way, I suggest you try a trick I use every time I’m faced with a mounting list of stuff to do.    I simply review each item on my list and ask myself “if we executed this task to perfection, does it really help us get to where we want to be?”  I’m always amazed how often the answer is “no” and I can just scratch the item.  How does an item get on your list if isn’t going to make an impact?  I’m not exactly sure, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that high-energy people are willing to add stuff to their very full plates without thinking too much about the cost of the loss of focus.

If you’re feeling guilty or lazy about only accomplishing one major thing a year, just remember that you’ll likely work 45+ years in your life.  That type of success rate ultimately adds up to a lot of wins along the way.